High Court decision on our data retention challenge

Great news today from the High Court where Mr. Justice McKechnie gave an extremely favourable decision on our constitutional challenge to data retention laws.

While the full judgment is 53 pages long, the gist is relatively simple.

Long story short: today’s decision has cleared the way for our challenge to proceed and to challenge the entire European legal basis for data retention.

(Following the wider European trend where Germany, Bulgaria and Romania have all found aspects of data retention to be unconstitutional.)

The longer version: Today’s decision dealt with three procedural issues which had to be cleared before we can argue the substance of the case: i.e. whether mass surveillance of this sort is compatible with constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights.

The first of these issues dealt with standing: could DRI (as a company, not a natural person) assert rights of privacy? And could it argue the rights of privacy of others? On this point the court held in our favour, accepting that DRI was a “sincere and serious litigant”, which raised these issues with bona fide interest and concern and ruling that it was appropriate for us to argue these points as this was a matter of “fundamental public importance”.

The second point dealt with an attempt by the State to stop the action in its tracks by seeking “security for costs” – i.e. requiring us to make a payment into court to cover the costs of the State should we lose the action. Because of the cost of High Court actions, requiring such a payment at the outset could effectively have prevented the case from being heard. Here the court rejected the State’s application, holding that:

the matters pleaded in this case do raise issues of significant public importance… Given the rapid advance of current technology it is of great importance to define the legitimate legal limits of modern surveillance techniques used by governments… without sufficient legal safeguards the potential for abuse and unwaranted invasion of privacy is obvious… That is not to say that this is the case here, but the potential is in my opinion so great that a greater scrutiny of the proposed legislation is certainly merited.”

Finally, the third point related to our application to refer this case to the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”). As data retention is now dealt with at a European level, it is important that we be able to challenge the European law in this area – something which can only be done before the ECJ in Luxembourg. Here the court again accepted our argument, holding that a reference to the ECJ was required and that it was appropriate that it be made at the current stage of the proceedings.

So what happens next? There will be some more legal argument next week about the precise questions which should be referred to the ECJ – after that, the case will be referred to the ECJ and will go into their system for a hearing in Luxembourg, which have implications for data retention across Europe.